1976 U S Grand Prix-Watkins Glen Postcard

Harry Kennison is a fan with a camera and a gift for telling good stories. This another in a series of wonderful Harry Kennison Postcards that are archived on our site. We hope you enjoy them.

HK1976GP

In the mid 70’s with college and the Army behind me, my wife and I had settled down in Denver, Colorado where I continued my budding public relations and marketing career with “Ma Bell.”   While Colorado is a beautiful place, back then it was not exactly a hot bed of motor sports activity, save for the Pike’s Peak Hill Climb.  In 1976, if you wanted to see the U S Grand Prix, you had to travel back east to Watkins Glen or head out west to Long Beach for the inaugural U S Grand Prix-West.  Both were long drives from Denver to say the least.  Fortunately, my job occasionally offered me the opportunity to travel and as luck would have it, I was asked to go to Washington DC in early October, 1976.  Early October?  Gee, with a little luck I could wrap up my business in DC and hit Watkins Glen on the way back home.  Turns out there was a direct flight to Elmira, New York right out of Washington National so I snagged a reservation on one of the 18 seats on this commuter flight and was set to go.

For those of you who have followed Formula 1, certain years stand out as being a particularly tight fight with the championship not being decided until the very last race.  This was certainly the case this past season with Sebastian Vettel rising to the top in the season finale at Abu Dhabi.  It was also true in 1976. 

Before I get to the penultimate round of the season at Watkins Glen, some background is appropriate to set the stage.  In 1976 the principle combatants were 1975 World Champion Niki Lauda driving his Ferrari 312T2 and James Hunt, the dashing Brit, behind the wheel of his McLaren M23-Ford Cosworth.  In the first half of the year it looked to be a Lauda-Ferrari walk-away with the Austrian scoring four wins in the first six races to Hunt’s lone win in Spain during the same stretch. 

In the second half of the season two game-changing incidents would take place which would force the championship down to the final race in Japan.  First James Hunt would seemingly win his home British Grand Prix only to be disqualified when officials confirmed that he restarted the race in a back-up McLaren when his was damaged in a first lap crash which red-flagged the race. 

The second incident involved the seemingly invincible reigning world champion, Niki Lauda.  On the second lap of the German Grand Prix held on what turned out to be the final time on the 14.17-mile Nurburgring Nordschliefe circuit, Lauda lost control of his Ferrari and crashed in a horrific fireball.  American Brett Lunger, who was also involved in the crash, Arturo Merzario, Guy Edwards and Harald Ertl stopped on the track and extricated Lauda from his burning Ferrari.  Lauda would spend the next six weeks in the hospital undergoing treatments for third degree burns during which time he was even administered last rites by a Catholic priest.   Just 39 days after his crash, Lauda climbed back into his Ferrari at Monza for the Italian Grand Prix and finished a remarkable fourth.  Hunt won the next round of the championship in Canada where Lauda failed to collect any points.  So, headed for the Glen, Lauda, despite missing two grand prix, led the championship 64 points to Hunt’s 56 points.

As for me, I wrapped up my meeting in Washington DC and the next morning, bright and early, headed to the Washington National airport.  The plane was a twin-engine commuter that carried me and another 17 passengers northwest toward Elmira.  During the flight, I remember meeting a photographer sitting across the aisle from me who cradled a large camera bag under the seat ahead.  She said she had been on assignment to cover every round of the 1976 Formula 1 series for her European magazine.  I couldn’t help but think that while I was making a decent living working for the phone company, following the Formula 1 circus around the world would be a lot more fun.  Financial security verses passion; hindsight’s always 20/20.  If only. 

I peered out the window as we approached our destination and was struck by the picturesque countryside passing beneath us.  The hardwood covered hills were a blaze in reds, oranges and golds.  Pristine towns that dotted upstate New York with their white church steeples signaled a quiet and simple life reminiscent of a Grandma Moses painting. Definitely a far cry from what I’d left behind in Washington DC. 

Once on the ground, I picked up my rental car at the Elmira airport, which turned out to be a Dodge Cordova equipped, according to Ricardo Montalban, with “fine, Corinthian leather”, and headed up Highway 14 toward Watkins Glen, located at the bottom tip of Seneca Lake.  My plan was to use the rental car as my home away from home for the entire weekend, as any motel within 50 miles was already booked and I didn’t pack a tent.  As the skies darkened and a cold mist settled over the track, I realized that this might not have been the best of plans.  Ah, but who cared.  I was at the Glen in time for the afternoon practice.  And, what a practice it was. 

I found a scary-close place along the snow fence just below where the newly added loop section reconnected with the original track (there’s no way that a general admission ticket would get you this close to the cars today). The cars up-shifted out of the 90° right hander and screamed up the hill leaving a fine spray in their wake.  Then it was hard on the binders for the sharp left-hander which took them back to the old track.  The Ford-Cosworth V-8’s in the McLaren’s, Tyrrell’s, Shadow’s, March’s, Hesketh’s and Surtees provided a raspy, deep sound but were overshadowed by the ice cream-headache induced shriek of the 12-cylinder Ferraris, Matra and Alfa Romeos.  Talk about a treat to your senses!

That night I trudged through the rain over to the Kendall garage area where the F-1 cars were being stripped down and re-assembled for next day’s race.  Unlike attending a F-1 race today, you could see the drivers, team managers, mechanics and cars up close and personal.  I remember chatting with Gordon Murray, the young designer for the Brabham team who was supervising the work on the complex Alfa Romeo flat-twelve engine nestled behind the chiseled shape of his F-1 contender.  In another corner of the garage you could almost eves-drop on an impromptu team meeting between Colin Chapman, Mario Andretti, Gunnar Nilsson and the rest of the Lotus boys.  While on the other side of the garage, James Hunt was joking with McLaren team principle, Teddy Mayer.  Ken Tyrrell, Team Manager for the Tyrrell Team could be seen talking to Ronnie Peterson, who, as it turned out, would take over Jody Scheckter’s seat in the six-wheeled Tyrrell the following year.

Then it was back to the spacious confines of my mobile hotel, the infamous Cordova, which by now was slowly sinking further into the mud.  After a restless night in the back seat, I awoke with a kink in my neck but discovered much to my delight that the rental car had survived the night surrounded by the “Bog People.”  For any readers who attended a Grand Prix at the Glen in the 70’s can attest to, escaping a night in the Bog at the Glen in a rental car was not always a sure thing.

As far as the race went, Hunt in his McLaren continued his winning ways taking the victory with Jody Scheckter in the six-wheeled Tyrrell P34 finishing second and Lauda taking the third spot on the podium after a courageous drive in his Ferrari.

So, with one race to go in the 1976 Championship, Lauda still led Hunt three points heading into the final round to be held in Japan.  As wet as it had been that weekend at the Glen, it was worse at Japan’s Fuji circuit where a torrential down-pour fell on race day.  Niki Lauda, who some said gained a new perspective on life verses racing after his near-fatal crash earlier in the year, withdrew on lap 2 due to the abominable conditions.  This allowed James Hunt to sneak into third and pick up the four most important points of his career. This gave Hunt the 1976 Drivers’ Championship by a single point over Lauda.  It would be his first and only Championship.